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2 February, 2012  ▪  Yulia Voitenko

The Painted Garden

Woodland art, a painting style introduced by Canadian artist Norval Morrisseau, a member of the Ojibwe tribe, has also taken root in Ukraine

There is no way that the paintings of woodland artists can be confused. People, and often animals are portrayed in them as if under a piercing look that opens the internal light and threads between all creatures on the planet, regardless of their type, age or gender. This is a typical feature of style introduced by the founder, which has its origins in the folk art of native Canadians, particularly petroglyphs and birch-bark foils. Surprisingly, the Ojibwe traditions have also found their way to Ukraine. Vasyl Mushyk, a Kharkiv-based artist, paints woodland pictures. He comments on some symbols and concepts in woodland art and shares his own experience of “X-ray vision”.


In the current understanding, when not referring to the work of Norval Morriseau, thus the traditional Ojibwe style, woodland is a term to describe the Anishinaabe painting style. Anishinaabe is a group of tribes living in reservations around the Great Lakes, on either side of the US-Canadian border. They include the Ojibwe, Odawa and Algonquin tribes. The area is  covered in woods, hence the name, while Manitoulin Island on Lake Huron, a symbolic place for many woodland painters, is considered to be the biggest island on a freshwater lake in the world. The climate is colder and dryer than inUkraine, yet the faunas of the two countries have much in common. Vasyl Mushak paints the foxes, bobcats, hares, wolves, bears, deer, moose, insects and amphibians found in the Ukrainian countryside.

In the past, the art of local communities, including woodland, often served to help Native Americans protect their rights. For instance, the sketches by Martin Panamick were used as leaflets in the campaign to protect the rights of indigenous men and women imprisoned in South Dakota, USA, for an alleged “revolt” against the judiciary, although there was no violence, it was simply about one woman demanding justice for her murdered son. This activity in art was, and continues to be directed towards both social and environmental issues. Woodland exhibitions are often held to draw awareness to the deteriorating ecosystem of the Great Lakes, brought about by global climate change. In Ukraine, Vasyl Mushyk and people involved in the protection of wolves have initiated dialogues with hunters and the distribution of talismans, which looked like woodland-style wolf prints, to promote a humane attitude to wildlife.

All these efforts, together with the unexpected parallels between Canada and Ukraine, reach much deeper than is apparent at first glance. Woodland is not a purely Native American culture. Initially, this art focused on a dialogue with other ethnic communities. It was a way to communicate values and needs in a language that is a line between the dominating system of symbols in European painting and the folklore of a specific ethnic group. Norval Morriseau, who was given the name Copper Thunderbird, called himself a shaman, since he helped people find harmony within themselves through colors. At the same time, Norval Morriseau was a Catholic. He respected Jesus and admired “The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa” by Lorenzo Bernini. Jackson Pollock praised and displayed Morriseau’s works. After a show in 1962, collectors bought all of his paintings, making woodland art hugely popular. These contradictory moments in the biography of the Canadian artist are opportunely mentioned by reasearcher Erika Pipe, when commenting on his painting entitled “The Gift”, saying that it cannot be interpreted merely as an accusation against colonizers for bringing a foreign religion and diseases to the indigenous people of North America, since the painter himself was no stranger to the European civilization. Indian symbols in woodland serve to confirm the solidarity of all living creatures. The concept of a unity that extends beyond that which is human, is what attracted the Polissia-born Vasyl Mushyk to woodland art and allowed him to introduce Slavic symbols into his own unique style.

In spite of the existence of woodland summer schools and Morriseau’s personal exhibitions in Canada and France (he was the only Canadian artist to be invited to the celebration of the anniversary of the French Revolution in France), it is very difficult to find literature on this art style. Galleries and museums exhibit few woodland paintings since most remain on native Canadian reservations. However, in many cases, these artists know each other well and treat each other as equals. Vasyl Mushyk and Christian Morriseau, who is Norval’s son and a woodland artist, have given one another paintings.


Norval Morriseau, Daphne Odjig, Jackson Birdie and Lelanda Bella painted many human figures, while Vasyl Mushak gives preference to animals. “I have been interested in animals ever since I was a child,” he says. “They have the spiritual essence we can feel in people, but only intuitively guess at in animals.” 

Woodland paintings focus on ritual symbols and visualization. Mushyk’s painting titled “Three Dishes for One Being”, portrays the different life cycles of an insect that are somehow similar to rebirths, therefore their status is not less than the roaming of the human soul. In its turn, the music that lives inside every human and joins with the surrounding nature, begins to live in cats’ eyes and blossoming flowers, and swings dandelion parachutes. Overall, Vasyl Mushyk’s paintings have a significantly more harmonious color range and subject than do those of Norval Morrisseau. This is possibly because of the difference in cultures since Morrisseau’s art is much closer to native art, as well as the bright colors of American art at that time.

The first thing that makes an impression in Vasyl’s studio, is the hospitality and simplicity, not the hand-made “Indian” flute and extensive collection of household artefacts from Polissia. It’s not a well-equipped studio, but a small well-lit room in an average Kharkiv apartment block. The artist rarely sells his works. Instead, for the most part, he either displays them, or gives them as gifts. Canadian artists are no more ambitious than he is. Despite the high quality of their paintings, woodland artists clearly do not strive for personal fame or wealth. It appears that to a large extent, their non-celebrity status is through choice, not as a result of trends on the art market. Woodland art often decorates the walls of summer schools, in other words, it has a practical application. Vasyl has hung one of his paintings near the entrance door. This painting, The Path of Unity, both enhances the interior with an image that could be depicted on a decorative carpet, and also serves as a gesture of hospitality of sorts: human, animal and bird footprints are combined with soil comprised of warm colors.

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